Etheldredaby Moyra Caldecott
Etheldreda, Princess of East Anglia, Queen of Northumbria and Abbess of Ely, was a remarkable woman who lived in restless, violent times when old beliefs were dying and new ones were struggling to emerge. Pagan clashed with Christian as the seven kingdoms of the Germanic tribes warred against each other and against the native Celts. Occasionally an uneasy peace was
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Etheldreda, Princess of East Anglia, Queen of Northumbria and Abbess of Ely, was a remarkable woman who lived in restless, violent times when old beliefs were dying and new ones were struggling to emerge. Pagan clashed with Christian as the seven kingdoms of the Germanic tribes warred against each other and against the native Celts. Occasionally an uneasy peace was bought by the skilful use of the 'diplomatic marriage', and twice Etheldreda, though vowed to chastity, submitted to marriage for political reasons. When her second husband refused to accept the 'arrangement' between them, she fled south to the Island of Ely.
But this is not just the story of a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon saint. It is about the general human struggle to comprehend the enigma of existence and to come to terms with Christ's God, faced as we are by a violent and cruel world.
This edition also contains several pages of chronology, genealogy, place names, notes and a map.
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To the defenders of Egric's dykes, Penda's warriors seemed numberless.
All day they came.
Time after time the air was filled with the high deadly whine of arrow flight, the scream of the wounded, the barbarous battle shout of the enemy. Where the dykes were most easily breached, at the point where the trade road to the south-west crossed the great ditch on ramp and wooden bridge, the fighting was hand to hand, Penda wielding his battleaxe as though he were cutting the tall wheat at harvest time. The Seer he had consulted had promised him that much blood would be spilt, but that not much of it would be theirs.
The invading Mercians had few casualties. The hapless East Anglians, defending their homeland, had more than they could count.
* * * *
Before the last great dyke the Mercians paused. Evening was coming on fast, and the sun was staining the sky with a reflection of the blood that they had shed upon the earth. Penda called back his men to rest and gather strength, intending to take the dyke at dawn. They made camp, roasting the cattle they had taken from their enemies, drinking the ale they had brought with them from their homeland.
Two young princesses of the East Anglian court, Etheldreda and Saxberga, daughters of Prince Anna, were far from home, staying with relatives. The first they knew of the Mercian invasion was the sudden arrival of terrified refugees making for the fenlands, preferring to take their chances with the ghouls and demons that inhabited those mysterious regions than be put to the sword or split by the axe. Behind the refugees the princesses could seethe black smoke as village after village across the land was set on fire.
Panic-stricken, the princesses' relatives hastily packed up all they could carry of their possessions, and the girls joined them in a dash for the east. They hoped that they would reach the final dyke and be allowed over the ramps before they were closed for battle.
At the last ford before the dyke, where the crowds of hysterical people were struggling against each other in the effort to get to the other side, Saxberga was knocked off the horse she was sharing with Etheldreda and trampled under its hooves. Screaming for her sister as she saw her go under, Etheldreda flung herself after her and tried to drag her clear. The horse was instantly seized by someone else and ridden off; the two girls, separated from their friends, were left in the muddy water among the pushing, violent people.
Etheldreda was weeping and trembling, but she would not let her sister go for fear of losing her. She managed to drag her unconscious body somehow across the river and out of the path of the stampeding cattle, people, horses and carts. She called for help, but no one came to aid her. She stared in astonishment. It was only the day before that these same people had been bowing with respect to her and her sister as they rode high and fine upon their royal horses. The sun had shone on peaceful fields of yellow buttercups. Cows had grazed and chewed on the cud.
Now it was as though she and her sister were invisible. Torn and muddy and bedraggled, they were indistinguishable from the peasants and slaves who drove the farmers' cattle across the ford and, for the first time in her life, she knew that she was on her own, that her survival depended entirely on her own ingenuity. She could not even turn for help to her older sister.
She stopped crying and looked around her. A little further on to the left was a wood; this would give them hiding place and shelter. She knew that they had to get away from the terrified mob, who were almost as destructive as the invading hordes from which they were fleeing.
Little by little she half dragged, half carried her sister to the wood, and did not rest until they were deep inside and well out of sight of the crowds and the distant columns of smoke. There she carefully made Saxberga as comfortable as she could on a bed of bracken, and carried water from a tiny trickling stream in her hands to splash into her face.
Saxberga regained consciousness with a jerk, and screamed with the pain she felt in her leg. Etheldreda flung her arms around her and held her tight.
'We're safe,' she whispered, the tears she had held back for so long beginning to flow.
Saxberga's face twisted with the pain, but she tried to pull herself together for her little sister's sake.
'What is happening?' she asked. 'Where are we?' She could hardly bring the words out as she struggled to make sense of the situation.
'We're safe,' Etheldreda babbled on. 'No one will find us here, we'll wait until the fighting is over.' The tears ran through the dirt on her cheeks unnoticed.
Suddenly they heard a movement behind them and swung round, horrified to find themselves observed by a strange, rough youth clad in skins, his hair and eyes dark, a dead deer over his shoulder. Etheldreda seized a stone that was lying next to her hand and clutched it, ready to use it as a weapon if necessary.
He took a step nearer, staring at them curiously. She shrank back. Was this one of the dread heathen Mercians? He certainly was not of their own race, though he did not look as fierce and cruel as they expected. Perhaps he was one of the native people, a Celt. She moved away from Saxberga and stood up straight, like the princess she was, looking him in the eye.
Copyright © 1987, 2000, by Moyra Caldecott.
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Meet the Author
Moyra Caldecott was born in Pretoria, South Africa in 1927, and moved to London in 1951. She has degrees in English and Philosophy and an M.A. in English Literature, and has written more than 20 books. She has earned a reputation as a novelist who writes as vividly about the adventures and experiences to be encountered in the inner realms of the human consciousness as she does about those in the outer physical world. To Moyra, reality is multidimensional.
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A Story about a woman who endures much but manages to keep her faith throughout. Very inspiring and well told story.